Stevens faces two juries as voters decide

Senator's performance on stand could sway Alaskans' opinions

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008

WASHINGTON - When U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens first took the witness stand, it was with his familiar vigor and spunk.

It would be "a privilege and duty" to testify, he told the judge in a firm voice. The senator then crisply recounted what supporters see as a personal history unparalleled in politics.

Later, however, in the midst of often arduous testimony about possible corruption, came this moment of imprecision from the 84-year-old lawmaker: "I can't read my own writing," Stevens mumbled, struggling to read aloud a note he had written a friend.

The conflicting snapshots of the longest-sitting Republican senator do not just matter in the Washington courtroom where he has been on trial for nearly a month on charges he lied about more than $250,000 in free home renovations and other gifts.

Stevens' performance during two days on the stand this past week - and at least one more day this week - could sway what has been called a second jury: the Alaska voters who on Nov. 4 will deliver a verdict on whether he should keep a position he has held for 40 years.

Like jurors, voters have to decide which Stevens they believe. It is the razor-sharp politician who easily gushed dates, facts and figures about a proposed Alaska natural pipeline? Or the agitated defendant who struggled to come up with an answer when teased by a prosecutor, "You can't remember when somebody put in a big, old bulky staircase at your house that you didn't ask for?"

With the polls close and Stevens stuck in the courtroom, his Democratic opponent, Mark Begich, has taunted him from afar. The Anchorage mayor accuses the senator of ducking debates and uses his legal predicament against him. Democratic ads pepper the Alaska airwaves, including one featuring dramatized FBI agents listening to the senator's calls.

"Something has gone terribly wrong," the narrator of one ad says. "Ted Stevens: It's not about Alaska anymore."

Stevens pushed for a speedy trial in hopes of clearing his name before Election Day of charges he purposely failed to disclose on Senate financial forms the renovations and freebies from his friend Bill Allen, the former chief of oil services company VECO Corp.

The senator says his wife, Catherine, paid every bill received by the couple for the modernization of their Alaska cabin - $160,000 in all. He also claims Allen kept the couple in the dark about the extent of the work and its cost.

The Alaska Democratic Party has dissected the defense, accusing Stevens' lawyers of trying to "razzle and dazzle" the jury by calling former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and other famous friends of the senator as character witnesses.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has piled on as well, urging voters in an e-mail message to vote for Begich so Democrats can reach a "filibuster-proof" majority - 60 Democrats.

"Ted Stevens will face two juries," Reid wrote. "The first will determine whether or not he is guilty of (corruption charges). The second will be the voters of Alaska, who have the opportunity to tell him they are tired of corruption."

Steven's campaign has countered by churning out news releases that make no mention of the trial. One carried the title, "Senator Stevens Does More after 5 p.m. than a Rookie Senator Could in a Year."

"My opponent is trying to convince Alaskans that I am no longer effective," the senator said in the release. Most loyal Alaskans, he added, "would disagree."

While on the stand briefly Thursday, Stevens offered autobiographical snippets that amounted to a 20-minute campaign ad. He described his childhood during the Great Depression, military service in World War II, crusade for Alaska statehood, the tragic loss of his first wife in a plane crash and four decades in the Senate.

On Friday, during hours of testimony, he was faced with the more tricky task of convincing jurors that a legislator known for clarity and tenacity was foggy about a project that turned his tiny A-frame cabin in Girdwood into a spacious two-story home with a sauna and wine cellar.

Stevens said he relied on Allen to oversee the project and, despite repeated confrontations, his friend refused to stop giving him gifts.

"You were the lion of the Senate, but you didn't know how to stop this man from putting big-ticket items at your home?" Morris said.

Also, the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls the government's purse strings, struggled to come up with the word "budget" when explaining that he relied on a staffer to calculate his family's income and expenses.

"She was very good at it," he said.

At times, the senator grew testy and interrupted the prosecutor: "You're not listening to me. I've answered it twice," "I'm not going to get into a numbers game with you," and "You're making a lot of assumptions that are unwarranted."

While prosecutors are only playing to one jury, their tactics may have at times benefited Stevens with Alaska voters. Stevens' supporters say he is being railroaded by prosecutors run amok, and the Justice Department did plenty to bolster that argument, repeatedly being scolded by a judge for withholding evidence or otherwise impeding Stevens' defense.

David Dittman, an Alaska Republican pollster, said that after a year of constant media coverage about the investigation, the trial has only helped Stevens.

"Absent a chance to defend himself, he'd be much worse off," Dittman said.

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